• Tools, Techniques, and Materials

    An interest in piecing together bits of fabric for warmth and beauty is the common thread that runs through the past century and a half of Adirondack quilting. There have been many changes, however, in the tools, techniques, and materials of quilting in that time.

    By the time the Adirondack region was settled in the early 1800s, printed cotton fabric was widely available. By the middle of the century the wide variety and affordability of prints had resulted in an explosion of quilt making all over the country—even in remote areas like the Adirondacks.

  • Comforter in the "Tumbling Blocks" pattern

    ca. 1910
    Tupper Lake, N.Y.
    Photo by Richard Walker

    The "Tumbling Blocks" pattern is an old one that depends on the placement of relative values of light and dark fabrics. If you stare at the blocks long enough, you will become uncertain as to which way is up. Each piece was cut out by hand using a template for the pattern and a pair of scissors. The quilter took great care in sewing them together so the bias edges wouldn't stretch.

  • Adirondack Fall

    wall hanging by Sherry Matthews, Piseco, N.Y.
    Private Collection
    Photo by Richard Walker

    Quilter Sherry Matthews started with the "easy pieces" method of constructing abstract squares for the background of Adirondack Fall. In this technique, the quilt maker cuts wedge-shaped pieces out of a number of different colors, sews them together, and then cuts the quilt squares out of the resulting "new" piece of fabric. This technique is made easy and fast with the use of a rotary cutter, acrylic templates and rulers, and a sewing machine.

  • "Shoo-Fly" pattern quilt

    ca. 1930
    Old Forge, N.Y.
    Photo by Richard Walker

    Fabrics and Fillers

    Quilting is usually thought of as a make-do scrap craft. The many pieces that made up the top layer of an old Adirondack quilt or comforter were often leftovers from home sewing, remnants from textile mills, or even scraps of old clothing. Use of scraps can mean either that the quilter couldn't afford new fabric or that she was frugal. Among the Mennonites of the western Adirondacks, the use of scraps is valued as good stewardship of God-given resources.

    Even in the nineteenth century, many quilters purchased at least some of the fabric for their quilts—the backing, perhaps, or the background. Some, like most quilt makers today, purchased all the fabric for bedcovers and wall hangings.

    The filling (or batting) of a quilt or comforter gives the piece warmth. It also adds texture when the three layers are tied or quilted. Tied comforters historically have outnumbered quilted bedcovers in the Adirondacks, probably because it is difficult to quilt a thick piece, and thicker batting meant more warmth on cold Adirondack nights.

    Many historic comforters had old woolen blankets or other quilts inside them. Commercially made cotton batting is also common in Adirondack quilts. It was available before the Civil War and could be ordered through the mail. Many quilters today use polyester batting, which was developed in the 1960s.

  • Sewing Machine

    ca. 1880
    Photo by Richard Walker

    Quilters' Tools

    Precision and speed have always mattered to Adirondack quilt makers. Some want to get the family covered before the weather turns cold. Some just want to get the piecing done so they can sit down, put their feet up, and quilt. Others are less interested in piecing or quilting than in precise, intricate designs. Sewing machines for piecing and quilting, as well as rotary tools for cutting, have each revolutionized quilting in their day.

    Sewing by machine is much faster than sewing by hand. A sewing machine's lockstitch, made by looping an upper thread through a lower thread, makes a sturdier seam than does hand sewing.

    Sewing machines were expensive in the nineteenth century—about a quarter of an average family's income in the 1850s. Some women, such as Julia Baker Kellogg of Minerva, N.Y., got together with others and bought a shared machine. Some bought the machines on an installment plan, a new concept for the era. This machine was made by the Howe Manufacturing Company, founded by the inventor of the first practical home sewing machine, and was used in Minerva, N.Y.

    Just as sewing machines sped up piecing, the rotary cutter (a tool that works rather like a pizza cutter) revolutionized cutting. Until the 1970s, scissors were essential tools; today many quilters depend on rotary cutters. Not only can quilt makers work accurately faster and more easily, they have developed quick-cutting techniques that have attracted a new generation to quilting and spawned an industry.

  • Johnsburg Calico

    ca. 1880
    piece of calico printed in Johnsburg, N.Y.
    58.340.1, 2, and Private Collections

    The town of Johnsburg, N.Y., was a "howling wilderness" in 1797, according to town founder John Thurman. Thurman did his best to civilize and industrialize the area, however, by building a calico mill, one of the first in the country.

    Cotton fiber was transported over miles of rough mountain roads, spun in Johnsburg, and then woven on hand looms by the new settlers. The fabric was printed at the mill, probably for local sale. The roller-printing machinery (brand new in America at the time), dyes, and other necessary chemicals were brought from elsewhere. Calico production ceased shortly after Thurman's death in 1808.

    Why did John Thurman build a textile mill in a "howling wilderness" two hundred years ago? One motivation was his investment in the area, but he also felt buoyant optimism and excitement about new technology in an industrializing America. Advances in dyeing and printing sparked an explosion in printed cotton fabric production and a parallel increase in quilt making.

  • Quilt in the "Bow Tie" pattern

    by Martha Meek, Indian Lake, N.Y.
    Photo by Richard Walker

    Tricks and Techniques

    The classic bow ties in this quilt are made from modern neckties—over 200 ties collected from the men of Indian Lake, N.Y.

    The "Bow Tie" pattern is a traditional one. Originally each block was made from two shapes, a small, square piece and four larger pieces made of squares with corners cut off.

    In making the blocks for this quilt, Martha Meek used an origami-like technique with five squares of fabric, two in a background color and three of the necktie material. The advantage of this method was that it produced a three-dimensional "knot" on the bow ties, and the pieces were all squares and could be easily and quickly cut with a rotary cutter. Quick piecing is typical of many modern quilting patterns.